The UK’s national mail delivery company Royal Mail (which is no longer state-owned, despite the name) has confirmed it will ditch its rail deliveries in October this year. 

In a letter to staff and later released to the public, DB Cargo UK CEO Andrea Rossi announced the “major U-turn by Royal Mail.” 

The letter and parcel delivery service is now owned by International Distribution Services, owned by Czech billionaire Daniel Křetínský. 

It previously committed to using more rail journeys to facilitate its net zero plans. The letter from Rossi said Royal Mail confirmed the decision was not made on operational grounds, as performance has been in line with its expectations. 

“To learn that Royal Mail is now planning to rely solely on road haulage to move customers’ letters and parcels around the UK is not just disappointing for DB Cargo UK, but the wider rail freight sector too,” Rossi said. 

Royal Mail Group said the decision had been taken due to the increasing cost of electricity on the railways. Electric current for traction (EC4T) costs are charged by Network Rail, the national infrastructure manager. 

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The EC4T tariff for the 2023/24 financial year was 22.903 pence per kWh. 

DB Cargo said the high cost of electric traction is a recognised problem for UK rail freight, and pointed out that it had already taken the decision to remove its electric Class 90 locomotives from service. 

The DB Cargo chief said the company was now “seeking urgent talks with the new Labour government… to see what more can be done to level the playing field between rail freight and the heavily subsidised road haulage sector.” 

The decision brings a long history of mail trains to an end. Credit: James Hime/Shutterstock

No trains, few planes, more automobiles

The cut to all Royal Mail rail services came just days after the company announced it would cut its domestic flights in half this year. 

The provider said it would “improve reliability for customers and minimise carbon emissions.” But the decisions are both against the current trend of a modal shift away from road haulage. 

“A total of 18 domestic flights are being discontinued. The removal of these flights is a significant step yet for Royal Mail towards achieving its target of being Net-Zero by 2040, and part of the company’s wider modernisation and transformation programme,” Royal Mail said in a statement. 

Alistair Cochrane, chief operating officer at Royal Mail, explained: “The removal of half of our domestic flights is our biggest step yet in reducing our use of air to transport mail and a major step towards our Net-Zero by 2040 target. Not only will this reduce carbon emissions, transporting more mail by road will also help us provide a more reliable service for customers and increase our capacity to meet the increasing demand for next day parcel deliveries.”

The firm said its road fleet is “partly” fueled by hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO), and 5,000 of its 41,500 vans are electric vehicles. 

Sector reactions have been swift to point out the regressive nature of the change. 

“This decision is a significant setback for those of us who believe in sustainable and reliable logistics solutions,” said Manchester City Council’s high-speed rail strategist Andrew Dixon. 

“This decision hampers our collective efforts to combat climate change… This decision needs reconsideration,” he added. 

The removal of rail trains from the UK delivery network will bring a 196-year-old tradition to an end. The first mail trains were put into service in 1830. But the sector has been changing with the decline of mail and rise of electronic and mobile communications. The final mail train with sorting staff on board ceased service in 2004.